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Windshield wipers (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Earlier this month many newspapers printed a short obituary of an engineer named Bob Kearns. I want to take a minute to remember this engineer, and his struggle for justice.

Bob Kearns invented the intermittent wiper blade - the blades that flash occasionally across a windshield. This simple invention caused him much grief.

In a sense the impetus for the invention occurred on Bob Kearns' wedding night. He opened a bottle of champagne and the cork struck his left eye - forever impairing his vision. A few years later Kearns drove his car in the rain and noticed how the wiper's regular motion distracted him because of his poor vision. He realized that a wiper should be more like an eyelid, that is, it should blink occasionally. This thought spurred him to build an intermittent wiper blade, which he tried to sell to Detroit auto makers.

Now, wiper blades interested auto makers because wipers helped sell cars. In the late 1950s several cars began sporting two blades that swept in parallel across the windshield, replacing the single blade that created a huge Vee in the middle of the windshield. This new two blade system attracted buyers, and by the 1960s every car had them. The next step was intermittent operation.

Kearns' key invention was making a cheap timer for the wipers. The auto companies had developed a mechanical contraption to do this with some twenty-nine moving parts. Kearns design by contrast was elegant: He used an electric motor with a timer to control the wiper. The result: Four parts, only one of which even moved. But it seemed so obvious that auto makers thought Kearns' patents would be null and void.

So, they built cars with these wipers, but didn't pay Kearns. When he heard about this he bought a wiper and carefully took it apart: He saw all the essential parts of his 1964 patent. So he sued every major auto maker for one point six billion dollars - this was about 500 million for his lost profits and more than a billion in damages. The first auto maker he sued offered him thirty million dollars to settle out of court. But to Kearns accepting the settlement meant that it was OK to steal inventions.

His case went to trial after a twelve year delay - twelve years in which Kearns' single minded pursuit of justice lost him his wife and broke his health. After a three week trial the jury returned a verdict: The auto maker indeed infringed on Kearns patents, but they awarded him $5 million dollars - a far cry from the 1.6 billion he wanted.

So, the next time your wipers flash across your windshield pause for a moment and think of the memory of Bob Kearns and his struggle for justice.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises